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Life in the Slow Lane a Pain Highway slugs earn epithets for obeying law

Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, March 8, 1999

Kevin Davis does not feel comfortable on the freeway unless cars are passing him on both sides. It once took the 38-year-old teacher more than five hours in clear weather with no traffic to drive from Lake Tahoe to his home in San Francisco. He has been flipped off, honked at and abused -- even by his friends and relatives.

He is, let's face it, a slow driver.

``Out of habit, I don't go over the speed limit at all,'' said Davis, who lives in San Francisco and is a perfectly normal, even pleasant, person in every other respect. ``Driving fast is unnatural.''

For many Bay Area motorists, the speed limit is the snail's pace one decelerates to only when a pesky California Highway Patrol car is spotted. The law, however, is doctrine to people such as Davis and his widely misunderstood cohorts in the slow lane.

While most of us routinely drive 70 or faster when traffic allows, these folks are poking along at 55 and, occasionally, 60.

The irony is that these good citizens are not applauded or appreciated for their lawfulness. In fact, they have become the pariahs of the commute, the bane of the cell phone-toting, SUV-driving crowds who have taken over city streets, highways and interstates.

Driving experts say that although some of these lollygaggers may, in some cases deliberately, impede the flow of traffic, they do not deserve the ridicule and condemnation they get. ``The slower drivers are yelled at, honked at and blamed for everything,'' said Judy Ann Lundblad, the owner of Ann's Driving School in San Francisco, whose clientele includes many older drivers who are speed- phobic. ``The person who didn't allow enough time to get somewhere is now blaming the guy in front of him. That's the attitude.''

Davis, who has never been in an accident, said the slow speed was planted by his father, Nelson, who rarely ventured out of the right lane.

``I remember it was like going to another state when we went in the fast lane once,'' said Davis.

He said his driving habits solidified in his early 20s when he was driving a motorcycle without insurance and was afraid of being pulled over. The Tahoe trip sealed his reputation with his friends, who still marvel a decade later.

``Now it just feels normal to have everybody on the freeway going about 5 miles per hour faster to the right and left of me,'' he said.

Karen Warner, 52, of Brisbane did not even learn to drive until last year because of the traumatic, shout- filled lessons with her father when she was a teenager. One can now find her in the slow lane.

``I try to stay under the speed limit all the time because I thought you were supposed to, but out on the freeway I feel like I'm standing still,'' Warner said. ``You try to be a law- abiding citizen and you get left in the dust.''

It is not clear when or how the words ``speed limit'' became synonymous with ``slow.'' Drivers have chafed at the speed limit for generations, but perhaps such impatience got a boost in 1974 when the national speed limit was reduced to 55 mph from 65 as an energy-saving measure in response to the oil embargo.

The move initially was effective, reducing accidents and pollution, but as cars became more fuel-efficient and people got busier, speeding violations began to rise.

STATE OF SPEEDERS

The average California motorist was consistently breaking the speed limit by 1996 and some 15 percent of them were zooming along at 67 mph or faster, according to California Department of Transportation studies.

The average speed of traffic hardly changed after the speed limit was increased to 65 on most freeways in 1996, said Caltrans spokesman Jim Drago. He said the number of fatal accidents has dropped every year since then, even though the number of vehicle miles traveled has increased.

Traffic safety experts believe that the reduction in fatalities has occurred because the slower drivers sped up, creating a smoother flow.

``The research I have done shows that accident rates are lowest when everyone on the freeway is going about the same speed,'' said Charles Lave, a professor of economics at the University of California at Irvine and an expert on traffic patterns.

``People clearly thought (the 55 mph speed limit) was a crazy law. What's important is setting a speed limit that people are willing to obey.''

More drivers may now obey the law, but one look at the flashing brake lights on the freeway when a CHP car appears shows how many motorists still do not.

The quota of turtles behind the wheel is, nevertheless, bound to rise as Baby Boomers join the ranks of the elderly, who generally drive more slowly. There is, in fact, already a kind of association of slow drivers who feel they have a moral duty to abide by the law -- and to enforce it.

BARELY MOVING BARRIERS

These so-called hall monitors of the freeway are the ones we see rolling along at 55 in the fast lane.

``My grandfather was the worst,'' said Wayne Ziese, spokesman for the CHP in Santa Rosa. ``With him, it was `I'll slow traffic down,' and he'd get out there in the left lane and drive 55. We'd try to stop him and he'd say, `I have a right to drive like this. They're the SOBs who are driving too fast!' ''

It may be this type of vindictive slow driver who is spoiling it for the good drivers who simply choose not to speed. After all, said Pete Barra, spokesman for the CHP's Golden Gate division, it is illegal not to yield to faster traffic.

``That type of behavior irritates drivers and in some cases could escalate into a freeway violence situation,'' Barra said ``That's our major concern.''

But Davis, who lives with his wife, Molly, and their 8-year-old son, Spencer, said he has no plans to change despite the occasional ``one finger salute.''

``I guess I'm just practicing to be an old man,'' he said. ``That way not even old age will slow me down.''

©1999 San Francisco Chronicle


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